Natural Disasters

February 18, 2019

It's not many people in this place who start their day with their home intact, their belongings safe and their garden blooming but finish the day with only the clothes that they have on their back and a tangled mass of metal, brick and ashes. But I'm not the only one. More importantly, that's what has happened to many families this summer from Tasmania to Queensland. The floods have caused similar anguish for many others. Anyone who has been through it knows you would not wish it on anybody else.

What we see under the Liberals every time a natural disaster happens is confusion and frustration about the immediate government assistance that people are eligible for. I'm speaking today on this motion moved by the member for Berowra, who shares the Hawkesbury River and the Hawkesbury wilderness with me as a boundary. We need to remember that the same thing keeps happening time and time again under this Liberal government. I want to take you back to the 2013 bushfires in the Blue Mountains, which destroyed 200 homes and damaged 286 others.

In the wake of homes being destroyed, while other homes were still burning and even more were under threat, while people couldn't return to their street to see if they even had a house still standing, to see if their pets were alive, while water wasn't running, while the electricity was off, while mobile phones were out of battery and food was rotting in fridges, while people were sleeping in temporary shelters or at friends' homes, while there were warnings that the worst was yet to come, while all this was happening, this Liberal government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a decision to restrict the disaster relief payment to people whose homes had burnt down or to those who were seriously injured. They were the only two groups able to access $1,000 per adult and$400 per child; no-one else. If you couldn't get back to your house for a couple of days because police wouldn't allow you to travel through kilometres of devastated homes, it was too bad; you missed out. If you were able to go home but you were stuck there with no electricity or water, you weren't eligible for a cent.

The rules changed from the policy that the Labor government had which meant that victims of the 2013 Tasmanian fires and Tropical Cyclone Oswald were helped by this modest payment if they were cut off from their homes or power and water, but not for victims in the Blue Mountains. The policy changed while the fires were burning. It was a mean, offensive decision to take while our community was still under threat, while people were still stunned at what was going on around them.

I want to thank the member for Sydney and Senator Doug Cameron who loudly spoke out in this house about what was going on. I also want to pay tribute to the people who have been through an awful summer in Tasmania because my Blue Mountains community went through five or six days of serious fire in 2013, but those communities went through it for three or four weeks. And, listening to the ABC, I heard the most moving description of it from a local resident and business owner who said the experience had left her in an exhausted daze of raw emotion. She said:

It's really difficult to go through 17 days of high anxiety, high adrenaline and back and forth evacuations, but you can't see the physical damage that the fires have done.

My community gets how tough that must have been.

The Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury know that recovery from natural disasters takes time. Five years on from the 2013 fires, the smell of smoke and the sound of helicopters still triggers anxious feelings for many people. While my house burned to the ground and took 4½ years to rebuild, I could go months without having to visit the street or the site but the few neighbours whose homes survived had to drive through what looked like a war zone multiple times in a day. Those things take their toll.

The people affected this summer will also take hope from the extraordinary efforts of so many volunteers, neighbours and community groups who rise to these occasions, and they will take hope from the work by the rural and the regular fire services, the police, the ambos and Defence Force personnel. No matter what steps we take to prepare for disaster and to mitigate disaster—whether it's fire, flood, storm, cyclone or drought—the very least a government can do is to make decent emergency payments. A Labor Shorten government will do that and much more.